Album Review: The National – Sleep Well Beast (4AD)

An experimental sonic and lyrical treat

The National’s Bryce Dessner seems to be everywhere, he works on so many other projects: the Revenant OST, a ballet, the Planetarium song cycle with Sufjan Stevens and a tribute album to the Grateful Dead for starters, it’s a wonder that there’s time to write and tour with the band. But there is more than one Dessner in The National, his twin brother Aaron is the second guitarist and the producer of a highly successful band both commercially and critically. The sound of Sleep Well Beast is largely a result of the Long Pond studio that Aaron built last year in upstate New York. A place where the band could rehearse, experiment and play without the time and money constraints of a commercial studio, nor the convention of a control room. Instead everything is in the same room, a space designed specifically for them and, one must assume, the building on the appropriately dark cover art. According drummer Bryan Devendorf “Getting drum sounds in a previously untested room was a seriously fun exercise in trial-and-error learning, in a group setting. Time disappeared, the sun set, and then the massive frog population in Aaron’s pond started singing.”

The sound on Sleep Well Beast was not all created in that space, once the basic song structures had been written Bryce and Aaron went to the Funkhaus in Berlin where they invited collaborators to sit in and “react to the music we’d been cooking for so many months within the band”. Didn’t this used to be called jamming? They also went to Paris to record orchestrations for the songs. There is a lot going on across the dozen tunes on this album but the production does its best to amalgamate them into a mellifluous whole, the aim appears to be to create a rich, indistinct but interesting backdrop for the words of singer Matt Beringer. Instruments do break out from time to time, the guitars being the most obvious, the stabbing riff of The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness are particularly effective, as is the bright, sharp solo. Things get more angular on the blazing Turtleneck, the one out and out rocker on the album and the best bit of Television style Strat abuse laid down for quite a while.

Beringer talks of being a nicer person but sings about being “no holiday” and having “nothing left to say” on the drum propelled Guilty Party. But there are signals of change in I’ll Still Destroy You despite the title, here he’s “just trying to stay in touch with anything I’m still in touch with”. Empire Line has not been released as a single but it should be, it’s another relationship struggle with lines including “You are in this too, can’t you find a way”, this song has an emotional power that cuts through. The most interesting piece is the title track where things get more experimental musically while the lyrics include the great line “Filling up the teacup with gin in your secret postcard life”. It ends the album slowly and beautifully, exposing some of the elements that are usually masked by other sounds including strings and pump organ.

Sleep Well Beast is a slow burn but one that gets its hooks deeper in you with every pass, if the NME doesn’t make it an album of the year tear up your subscription!

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